One of the biggest challenges we face in practice is conveying important health information so that owners understand it. It’s not that owners are stupid or incapable — quite the opposite, in fact! — but more that owners haven’t been through four intense years of veterinary college.
The actual words we choose need to be words that educate and create understanding. We also have to deliver potentially stressful information in a way that doesn’t cause the owner to become closed to communication.
It’s a very delicate balancing act in some cases. Each person that we work with has different goals, ethics, beliefs, and resources. I have just a small window of opportunity to reach the sweet spot in which these goals are met:
•The owner understands my diagnosis, my recommendations, and the treatment options
•The owner understands the consequences of following or not following various treatment plans
•The owner hasn’t been made to feel angry, stressed, or guilty
•The pet is being cared for in the best manner possible
I’ve had the full range of reactions from owners. When I first started practice, I got a lot of glazed-eye expressions. I needed about a year to get my explanations revised to the point that clients didn’t feel like they were sitting through a vet school lecture. (Believe me, I wouldn’t wish that on anyone! :)) I’ve had clients scream at me, walk out, tell me I’m a bad vet, tell me I’m just in it for the money, and threaten to sue. I consider myself a reasonably good communicator. These negative experiences point out one critical thing: If a vet can’t adapt how he or she conveys information to a client so the client’s needs are met, the communication will fail.
Effective communication requires a ton of effort. The photo above is an example of the wrong sort of effort! I could go on for pages and pages, citing resources on how to handle conversations and conflict, but I think the underlying message is far more simple. If we (the owner and the veterinarian) are going to do what’s best for the pet, we are going to have to work together.
It’s my responsibility to examine, test, diagnose, and offer treatment for the pets. I need to explain what’s happening (good or bad), and I need to be able to tell you what I recommend in a way that is understandable to you. I need to be able to advise you about prognosis, possible outcomes, and cost in a way that’s neither too pushy nor too cold. I need you to understand how serious a given finding is and what it will mean longterm if it isn’t handled properly.
I believe it’s the owner’s responsibility to answer our questions about housing, food and treats, activity level, appetite, previous medical history (even if treated by another hospital), medications, supplements, observations about bowel movements and urination, and a basic summary of the problem. Without this information, the veterinarian is already behind.
I need you to be forthcoming with all kinds of details, even if it means admitting you missed a heartworm prevention or medication dose. I need you to listen attentively when I do explain things or show you something. It will help me tremendously if you let me know what your goals are for the visit, what you want to do longterm for your pet, what you can afford, and what you are willing to do at home for treatment.
Honesty from me and with me will help your pet far more than you telling me what you think I want to hear. I’m not pulling punches when I explain that untreated dental disease will take 2 years off a pet’s life, for example. I need you to be brave enough to tell me that you’re concerned about the anesthesia, or that you don’t think you can give your cat a pill. The staff and I can make a tremendous contribution to giving you the training and tools you need to do what your pet needs you to do.
If we’re able to work together, your pet will benefit from the full weight of our knowledge and your commitment to good care. That is, after all, why we’re here!
I’d love to have some comments from your perspective about visits to the hospital or other customer-service experiences. What does it take to make you feel like you’ve been treated well? What sorts of things have happened to give you negative customer service experiences? What advice could you offer to help us communicate better?
As always, thanks for reading!